How Can Mindfulness Help Shyness?
How Can Mindfulness Help Shyness? Mindfulness is the awareness that grows from being present in the unfolding moments of our lives without judging or trying to change anything that we experience.
It’s a friendly and curious awareness that we all have, though we may not experience it very often because we are so rarely present with and accepting of things as they are.
Problematic shyness and social anxiety is inherently self-critical and rejecting, whereas the nature of mindful awareness is compassionate and accepting. Learning to look at yourself from awareness rather than criticism is an enormous change that will allow you to begin to see the habits of mind and behavior that exacerbate the pain of shyness. This new awareness can loosen the grip of these old habits and reduce their power to influence you.
The principle work of a mindfulness-based approach to working with shyness is therefore to grow in awareness and self-compassion and learn how to bring this awareness into your life whenever you can. I want to underscore an important distinction: the work isn’t to get rid of shyness or change any of your thoughts and feelings; it’s about cultivating compassionate awareness. Shyness can become just another facet of the many aspects of yourself. You can quit struggling with it and just let it be, and instead attend to the facets of yourself that you would like to see grow.
Mindfulness-based approaches have been demonstrated to be effective in reducing anxiety and depression (Orsillo and Roemer 2005). However, the kind of intellectual understanding you gain from reading about the benefits of mindfulness won’t provide the resources you need to free yourself from the suffering of shyness. You need to practice mindfulness to reap these benefits. The key to healing along a mindful path is awareness — actually experiencing awareness, not thinking about, reading about, or studying awareness. In a conversation with meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg a few years ago, he told me, “I don’t need research to know that meditation is good for me.” Larry has a way of cutting to the chase about things like this.
Being shy doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. You can be shy and also be happy and deeply connected with other people and realize your highest values. This is because shyness itself isn’t the cause of suffering, how you relate to it is. Mindfulness makes it possible to work with your relationship to your shyness to greatly reduce or eliminate the painful influence it has in your life. The mental and behavioral habits of shyness that cause suffering operate unconsciously and automatically, whereas the intentions of mindfulness are conscious and deliberate. As you make the shift from unconscious to conscious and from reacting to responding your self- concept and habits of mind will seem less substantial and locked in stone. Any one of us can become identified with some concept of who we are and then perpetuate this self-concept with our thoughts and actions. We may identify with a profession, a family or social role, a particular personality trait like shyness, or any number of other aspects of ourselves. Once we arrive at this self-concept, we tend to remain there and believe that’s who we are. We then look to live consistently with this identity and rarely notice anything to the contrary.
As long as you identify your entire self with thoughts, emotions, and behaviors related to your shyness or social anxiety, you’ll remain locked into that identity. And the longer you remain there, the more you’ll come to believe that this is who you are. By centering yourself in mindful awareness, you will come to see that this identity is just a collection of mental habits and therefore can be changed. By observing these mental and emotional habits and letting them be, you become more than your constructed identity; you become the awareness that is observing that constructed identity with compassion and acceptance. You are no longer centered within that identity or defined by it.
The essential components of mindfulness are antithetical to the components of shyness that create suffering:
• As mindfulness is non-judging, you can be accepting of yourself rather than self-critical.
• As mindfulness is a moment-to-moment, here-and-now awareness, you can actually be here rather than in some imagined future you feel anxious about.
• As mindfulness is turning toward and being with, you can stop avoiding the thoughts and feelings that scare you and stop generating the self-criticism and shame that can be fueled by avoidance.
• As mindfulness is compassionate and openhearted awareness, you can extend compassion to yourself rather than condemnation.
• As mindfulness is awakening to the fullness of being, you can stop identifying with a false and limiting sense of self.
• As mindfulness is non-judging and compassionate, you can free yourself from the prison of self-consciousness and extend the same generosity of spirit to others as you extend to yourself.
Steve Flowers is the author of The Mindful Path through Shyness: How Mindfulness & Compassion Can Help Free You from Social Anxiety, Fear & Avoidance.